Chris Holder: Breaking Down Coaching Instruction

Coaching is an art form. Don’t let anyone tell you different.

The great coaches, those who can inspire and get anyone moving well, are ones that have that X factor.

It’s charisma, charm and confidence mashed up into this almost mystical quality that you can’t put your finger on. I see it all the time, and the good ones stand out within seconds.

But what they also have is total ownership of the basics. Complete and total ownership of the basics.

I know I’m not going to make many friends with this next statement but it’s the truth: becoming one of the it coaches is reserved for those who have been in the game for a long time.

What does “long time” mean?

To be honest, I don’t have a quantifiable number, but I do know it’s not someone who’s been coaching/training for two years. I say this is simply because they haven’t seen enough reps. Guys like Dan John, Andrew Read, Charles Staley, and Don Saladino have all been in the game for a while now. They’ve done the work, they’ve coached some of the best, and they’ve seen hundreds of thousands of reps. This level of exposure sets them up for success because they can see things that most of us can’t. Nuanced, small things that blend in for most of us become red flags to them. Their vision is so sharp that they can streamline what they are seeing into small, actionable pieces to get the most bang for their buck.

For the rest of us, we must sharpen our blade in areas we can control. Having ownership of your approach to coaching is mandatory for success.

Who are you?

Are you an Oly coach? A kettlebell guy/gal? Are you speed aficionado? What are you about? I tell my young coaches that I mentor they need to be a jack of all trades and a master of some. Yes, you need to have an area or two where you are develop guru-level understanding. It’s imperative. Having that level of mastery creates foundation in your coaching. It also bleeds concepts into other areas which you have not mastered and creates further footing in topics you are unsure about.

A coach who has a million certs but doesn’t fully own any of them in their bones is going to get similar results in their clients. So-so results for a so-so minded coach.

What does this have to do with breaking down coaching instruction, you ask? You need to be tethered to a discipline. When all else fails, you have a concrete understanding of something significant and you can refer back to that when you need to. For example, I am a kettlebell guy. I know how to coach kettlebells, front to back. I’m past the point of being confident and I’ve ventured into a space of being downright cocky about it.

Good or bad, my kettlebell expertise reaches beyond kettlebell training and finds many of the same concepts serving the barbell, bodyweight work and even some gymnastics. Having established teaching progressions, rules and practices for my kettlebell coaching provides a framework for everything else I teach. And it works.

Why did you chose that?

I see it all the time. You know, that trainer or coach who picks exercises almost whimsically . . . without thought. I coached with a guy a few years ago who put together a workout for his football team, and on a given day, we had the guys go through forty-six exercises.

46 exercises. In an hour.

It was the biggest hodgepodge, shit show I had ever seen and instead of picking a handful of things and working on training qualities of these few things, he basically vomited everything he knew onto one page, for one work out.

Have a reason for doing what you are doing, and be able to express that reason in a concise, salesman-like type of fashion. The bandwidth most athletes have for information is very limited, so you need to be able to convey large ideas in very digestible chunks.

I have a few major concepts that find their home in everything we do. We have sifted through every exercise, we’ve uncovered any and all possible strategies and these three things hold true for everything. We build our teaching progressions around anchoring everything back to our big three. This creates a global understanding of what the take home is and gives our athletes a continual reference back to our bread and butter ideas.

My answer to “why did you choose that?” is “because it lends itself back to our mission as a program.” Know yours before you begin teaching.


What does the exercise look like?

This area is a 5,000 word article in and of itself. Before you can begin deconstructing an exercise, your athletes must see what you want. And I’m not talking about a quick demo. I’m talking about a textbook version of what you are going to expect from them. You’ve seen it all over social media. The abominations that some trainers and coaches post on their feed that makes you uncomfortable watching. Don’t be that person. If you can’t demo things exactly how you want it, find someone in your space who can.

I’ve written on this before, but you must understand that we take on what we see. The science guys have discovered mirror neurons. It’s a specialized aspect of the brain that takes on the movement patterns of what we see happening around us. Your athletes are going to begin to move like one another, so they all need a concrete understanding of what you need them to do (visually) and then the goal of the group is to move like that.

They will need repeated exposure to great reps throughout their training time with you, so when you have a person in the group who can really do the exercise well, refer back to them. But, if you want to create an environment for solid learning, especially for the newbies, they need to see exactly what is expected, from the very start.

From the ground up.

A large part of your tool box of exercises are going to be ground-based work. Feet on the floor, rooted-to-the-ground, fundamental and purposeful work. Therefore, your speaking points should begin with the feet. Unfortunately, the feet are overlooked in a lot of coaching because they don’t appear to be the featured intent of the exercise. Even worse, it’s assumed that everyone knows it.

What I can tell you, from years of making mistakes, is that the ground feeds nearly all of your training. Take pull ups and some ring work out of the equation, and your feet are the starting point for all exercises. I spend more time than you could imagine speaking on the relationship that the athlete has with the ground. I want them to understand how important it is, so we hit the idea of feet hard.

Once that is covered, work up the chain. It’s that old childhood song, “The foot bones connected to the, ankle bone, the ankle bones connected to the, leg bone . . .” You know the drill. Progress in a way that is cohesive. For example, when I teach squatting. We set the feet up first: the where’s, why’s and how’s. Then to the knees. What’s happening, how do you do it, and why we think this way. Then to the hips. Of course we squat because we want to develop strong hips, but we must do the dirty work below first. Keep walking up the chain until you have run out of relevant body parts for that exercise.

If you do this with everything you teach, you will quickly find that many of the aspects of movement are identical from exercise to exercise. So if you run into an exercise where the athlete is having a level of disconnect with what you are saying, you have similar techniques from different exercises to refer to. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve told an athlete to think about how they approach exercise X and simply to apply that same idea to exercise Y. Suddenly, the lights come on.

How fast, or how slow?

Another really important aspect of breaking down instruction is being crystal clear on the pace of the movement. Again, it’s a nuance that is inferred in many exercises, but I can guarantee that all of your athlete’s understanding of speed is not in line with what you are expecting.

So tell them.

Take, for example, my beloved kettlebell swing. In my mind one of the most useful and transferable exercises you can teach, yet one of the most bastardized exercises known. Go on YouTube, type in kettlebell swing and then watch the hundreds of variations you see in the first ten hits. And I’m not talking Russian compared to American. It hurts me sometimes.

Spell out the exact pace you are expecting to your athletes, then drill it. If you want them to pull themselves down slow and controlled in their squat, then drive out of the hole to an almost snap finish (3-4 different speeds if you think about it), you need to explain that to them. The masterful demo alone will not create enough understanding of your pace. Continue to drill this piece until they have it, they can repeat it, and they can show you on command.

What are you thinking about when you do this lift?

Can your athletes answer this in a logical way? If they can’t, you have missed a critical component of owning the exercise. Again, most athletes are like deer in the headlights when it comes to learning a new movement, so they have little context to draw from. So-and-so gets knee pain when they do this, so that person is thinking about their knee, not what you are talking about. Spell it out for them.

Intent is one of my favorite things to talk about because of the power of the mind. It’s truly the answer to all our problems. Give your athletes something to anchor their mind to when they begin to move. “Think about your hips, pull here, squeeze there, feel this . . .”

Give them something they can cling to when they are doing something they are unsure of and, perhaps, afraid of.

Do you have a plan B for your plan B?

They are all like snowflakes! It’s true. Not one athlete will be exactly like the next. So you need to have alternatives in your back pocket as you teach. From physical abnormalities to verbal disconnects, if I have said it once, I have said it a thousand times, “You need to have 14 different ways to say the same thing.”

Verbal flexibility is paramount in this profession. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to reword things multiple times to get someone in a groove. So if you don’t have multiple ways to garner understanding, you shouldn’t be coaching. I’ve watched smart guys crash and burn over and over because they were so locked into one way of saying something or doing something. The frustration of not being able to reach an athlete is harder on the athlete than it is on you, believe me. We work in an industry of getting people to work. The fastest way to stifle quality work is not having an athlete buy in because you failed to get them to understand.

Can you say it back to me?

This is a two part-er, and it’s what I finish every teaching session with. It drives my kids nuts, and probably makes my assistants crazy, but I don’t care.

Can you display a level of understanding of what we just covered by teaching it back to me? If you can say it back, I can sleep tonight feeling somewhat confident that you know, and own, what I want with this. So I will bring entire groups up and make them teach it back to me. I demand that they do it, just like I recommended to you, from the ground up. How are my feet? Where are my knees? My hips do this, why? And we go through it with a fine-tooth comb. Sounds laborious right? Try re-teaching something from scratch that you taught two weeks ago because you realize they didn’t get it.

I’m sure I’m the only coach in America who does the second part of this. At the end of every section/exercise, they have a mandatory amount of questions they must ask as a group before we move on. Three questions, five, up to even 10. I tell them, “Listen, I have nothing to do for the rest of the day, so we can sit here and look at each other for as long as you would like.” Typically the hands begin to raise and what you find immediately is that they are thinking. Amazing concept, right? You create an opportunity for each person in the group to dig deep, and ask something that most everyone will benefit from.

This also creates a laboratory for yourself. If you care about coaching, and you want to excel, if you listen to the questions that your kids are asking you, you can identify and accrue data on what you tend to miss when you coach certain things. It’s not just for them, it’s for you.

The last, and perhaps most beneficial piece to this approach is the opening the floor to dialogue. Look, many of your athletes are either too unsure, or too afraid, to ask for help. Creating a forum where they have to ask questions, manifests a relationship with them where they might find themselves more comfortable asking you something down the road.

True story: I recently worked with a group of 14 year-old club volleyball girls for the first time. Most of them had elbows that were larger in circumference than their upper arms. Legitimate newbies from front to back. I come rolling in with a full beard, 300lbs and a gravelly voice and I have 15 sets of eyes who are terrified of me.

As I began to coach, I realized that most of them had shut me out because of where they were looking when I was talking, so I brought them together and put the three-questions task on them. In less than a minute, they all realized that I was, ahem, a big teddy bear and their willingness to engage with me went through the roof. In less than a half hour, we had this group moving, and interacting where learning could happen.

I’ll finish this where I started it. Coaching is an art form. Like a true artist, you must hone your craft. The painter needs to paint and paint. And paint.

The coach needs to take every opportunity to coach.


Chris Holder is the head Strength and Conditioning coach at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, California. His football background, a Master RKC certification and 20 years of coaching experience at the college level have given him an edge in developing his athletes. Holder is also a Doctor of Medical Qigong and has found training success in his unique blending of eastern medical and spiritual approaches with western strength science.


Coaching resources at OTP

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Dan John Human Movements - Fundamental Human Movements - The Body Is One Piece


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